Look at Marvel and their Ultimate family of titles: a tremendous success for the company re-imagining famous heroes from their 1960’s origin into a modern setting.
Take Spiderman in his regular comics books (set aside the fact he has currently become deceased—I’m sure it’s only temporary!). Peter is married and his teenage years and job at the Daily Bugle are a very distant memory. How can he appeal to the younger generation of readers attracted to the comic from the unqualified success of the films?
Marvels answer in 2001, start again with a young Peter Parker combining the winning teenage angst and apply some industry hot creative talent (Brian Michael Bendis). Introduce the library of supporting cast and storylines from 40 years of stories albeit at a much faster pace.
Once Ultimate Spiderman became a success, repeat the formula seemingly ad infinitum (Fantastic Four, Iron Man, X-Men, Avengers…)
You can imagine the conversations in the DC office, they want some of that!
However, a main criticism of the Marvel Ultimate line is that there will come a point when, like the standard titles, the line is no longer fresh, and we will end up with two distinct Spider-Men, and a very confused timeline. At this point, one wonders if perhaps Marvel will come up with a storyline of parallel earths where a mega-villain will surface and some kind of catastrophic event will be diverted but at a great cost to one of the earths. It would, of course be too big a storyline for just Ultimate Spiderman—it might take a crossover across all titles to do, one of the things that Marvel has explicitly avoided in their Ultimate titles.
So for DC’s new “All-Star” series to replicate Marvel’s success takes some careful handling. They had a Crisis on Infinite Earths twenty-five years ago, and many thought it was necessary to get them out of a particularly nasty continuity problem (why did Superman not age while other heroes around him had various aging incarnations?). It appears that DC enjoyed the problem so much they are currently revisiting it in Infinite Crisis. It’s an event I, as a hardcore fan, enjoy reading, but it is certainly not attractive to any new readers. In order to bring in new readers, there is an additional pressure to get these comics sharing the “All-Star” title right.
The first launch was All-Star Batman and Robin, Frank Miller’s and Jim Lee’s take on the classic characters. While the dialogue was fresh out of Sin City, it took the Ultimate approach in reinventing the origin and exploring Dick Grayson, a certain circus accident and how Batman met Robin.
The second launch is All-Star Superman with Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely as the creative talent. It’s clear with industry names like this that the All-Star in the title is as much a tribute to the writers and artists as to the character.
What’s great about reading this issue 1 is that I am no wiser to understanding where this Superman fits into the timeline, which intrigues me even more.
The origin of Superman, for example, is touched on the first page. It’s told in four panels and eight words (“Doomed planet”, “Desperate scientists”, “Last hope”, “Kindly couple”). It’s a great decision as there can’t be many people who don’t know this back story. It allows Morrison to dump the typical slow set up of an issue 1 (think of an origin movie, which from the looks of the teaser trailer for Superman Returns we are going to have to sit through next year). Morrison instead presents his Superman simply and affords maximum time to begin his storyline. It was disappointing to see what Miller go to All-Star Batman and pick a very familiar story to reinterpret at tedious length. Instead, Morrison begins his run confidently and does not disappoint.
We immediately join Superman on a mission to save the unwitting Ray Bradbury space shuttle from sabotage by arch nemesis Lex Luthor. The Bradbury is on a trip to the Sun. Superman saves the ship but overexposure to the Sun causes his abilities to take a sinister turn which forces him to make the ultimate revelation to Lois.
Grant Morrison’s comic output has always been exceptionally high quality, from his 2000AD days to reinterpreting Doom Patrol and Animal Man for DC. Recent years have varied between the DC Vertigo imprint (Invisibles, The Filth) to more mainstream (X-Men for Marvel and JLA for DC).
Here, he presents Luthor as a calculating sociopath; his hatred of Superman comes across almost palpably. Superman is the traditional honourable figure, although he seems to be unrealistically unemotional when receiving some very bad news. The supporting cast of regulars Perry, Jimmy and Lois are spot on, everything a reader familiar with the characters’ histories would expect, but unburdened by years of continuity. What is clear is that we are early on in the relationship of Lois and Clark, a creative choice that gives both writer and reader freedom in exploring where it goes.
Quitely’s art, as ever, is very good and vividly colored by Jamie Grant. Quitely’s square-jawed style is so distinctive that you can always identify his work, but I did think that his Lex Luthor looked a little too much like Cassandra Nova from the New X-Men run Frank did with Grant.
So a great debut issue, for me it’s as much about reading Morrison’s scripts as the character Superman. I hope DC reins in the All-Star imprint, though, as Marvel’s Ultimate model is not one I would like to see them follow. Rather than creating a whole new universe that will eventually face the same creative difficulties as the old one, these titles should be kept to small, independent stories that capture the imagination of new and old readers alike by telling stories that remind us why these characters are so iconic in the first place.